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The Museum as Medium

Is it about the art or the architecture? Both. Neither.

Art museums have been the primary medium for public access, understanding, and appreciation of art since the 19th century. By presenting art from pre-history to the present, art museums connect a large and diverse public to humanity’s artistic and cultural heritage. Born of the interests of the sophisticated classes during the Enlightenment and elevated to national institutions in Europe and America during the late-18th and 19th centuries, art museums have spread throughout the world. Now nearly every nation and major city features one or more art museums. Given the boom in museum construction over the last two decades, it sometimes seems that every one of them has been recently expanded or rebuilt.

Frequently dubbed the new golden age of museums, this period has signaled a significant shift in attitudes, expectations, and intentions since the first golden age at the end of the 19th century. We expect museums to serve as a medium for the interpretation of art Increasingly, we also demand that they serve as a medium for the expression of architectural ideas. Unfortunately, integrating effective interpretation of art with architecture has proven very challenging.

The success of the art museum as an institution is testament to the importance of the creative spirit and creative expression among all cultures; our respect for the inspirational qualities of art is central to this success. Individual, civic, and national aspirations have also been very strong influences in the development of art museums; identity and pride provide powerful motivation. These forces—the thirst for the inspiration that art provides, which is often most associated with the creation of collections; and the drive to celebrate identity and aspiration, which is often associated with museum architecture—are not always in alignment.

It is not a new problem. The Beaux-Arts template for museum buildings, which was developed during the 19th century and carried forward well into the 20th century, often created an overly embellished architec-tural framework. Even when curators, directors, trustees, and architects were in accord regarding the premise that art should be presented in an imposing civic monument designed to awe visitors, debates sometimes arose regarding the nature of interior galleries. During the 1920s and 1930s, curators and some directors argued that architecture should support the presentation of art rather than the glorification of architects or the ambitions of patrons who sought grand, monumental buildings.

Among the first architectural responses to those arguments were the Museum of Modern Art in New York City (Philip Goodwin and Edward Durell Stone, 1939) and the Kröller-Müller Museum in the Netherlands (Henry van de Velde, 1938), designed in the then-new International Style. These buildings were highly flexible, very functional, purposefully unimposing, and far more visitor-friendly than the typical Beaux-Arts art museum. The white-cube gallery, first created in these buildings, became the standard museum gallery space (and remains so today). Finally, it seemed, an architecture had emerged that aligned fresh thinking about curatorial missions with ascendant social and cultural ideals. But with the intervention of World War II, relatively few museums were built in this era.

In any case, the new orthodoxy was turned on its head by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, which opened in 1959. Unquestionably a striking work of architecture, the Guggenheim is generally a woeful place in which to display works of art. Single-handedly, it reinvigorated the debate between architectural statement and the presentation of art, which continues more than 50 years later.

Several solutions have been tried, and we have seen extremes at both ends of the spectrum. Louis Kahn and, later, Renzo Piano created museum buildings that quietly reinforce and amplify the art presented within them. Their buildings rely on fine detailing and the use of natural light, proportion, and elegance rather than exuberant design to achieve success. Frank Gehry, Santiago Calatrava, Daniel Liebskind, Zaha Hadid, and others have created highly dramatic, sculptural buildings featuring various degrees of functionality and flexibility.

Given the unprecedented number of museum expansion projects, especially over the past 15 years, one might assume the dynamic tension between the art museum as a medium for architecture and the art museum as a medium for the presentation and interpretation of art would be more commonly balanced in a way that recognizes the importance of both. But several impediments have constrained a broad-based realization of this goal.

Few museum directors or boards of trustees do more than one expansion project in their careers. Staff who are charged with the day-to-day responsibilities of planning and implementing a construction program frequently have little familiarity with the building industry and may not have previously managed projects of such complexity. Yet surprisingly few museums attempt to learn from the experience of others who have already completed such projects. Art museums are prone to dealing with architects as artists, and most lack experience in being a strong client. Consequently, design too often trumps functionality.

The tremendous success of Bilbao convinced many directors and boards that “signature” architecture and more square feet will result in a transformation of the museum. This has generally been a misplaced expectation. The drive to create new or expanded facilities absent sufficient associated endowment has placed many art museums in a precarious financial position, especially as many museums fail to adequately project and account for the increased costs of operation and new programs; the economic climate since 2008 has only exacerbated this condition.

Changes in functional requirements have also contributed to the challenge. Art museums today are multifaceted facilities that must support not only the presentation and interpretation of art but also performing-arts events, social events, educational activities, shopping, eating, visitor services, and a host of back-of-house functions. Successfully meeting the needs of these disparate functions and integrating them into a cohesive whole is extremely challenging. Unfortunately, what is too often forgotten in the juggling act is the paramount importance of the nature and quality of the visitor experience.

It is entirely possible to create beautiful art-museum buildings that are intensely uncomfortable to occupy. It is likewise possible to present and interpret art in reasonably effective ways while providing an overall experience for visitors that is unsatisfying. The totality of the experience includes a host of factors that have, in far too many instances, been ignored or given short shrift by architects and museum staff and trustees. Examples are all too familiar: unwelcoming entrances; awkward placement and design of admission and orientation desks; inadequate signage; poor acoustics; insufficient restroom facilities; lack of comfortable seating; confusing circulation flows; fatiguing and disorienting gallery layouts. A great deal of research exists regarding the ways people actually behave in art museums and the kind of experiences and spaces required to increase visitor engagement with art—yet very little of this information is incorporated into the design of most museums.

Building or expanding an art museum is an extraordinary opportunity. The trustees and staff are often sophisticated clients who are committed to promoting the arts; they tend to think in terms of cultural legacy and are often willing to embrace new, even experimental design. Architects welcome the prestige and the artistic license associated with the commission. Museum architecture occupies a special place in the design disciplines: It is often where significant design ideas are advanced, which in turn influence other building types.

But this same convergence of factors—legacy, fame, identity, openness to the new—too often conspires to promote the billboard statement. The ability to present and interpret art effectively or to create truly satisfying visitor experiences often receives less attention than the creation of dramatic architectural statements.

Now, at the beginning of the 21st century and well into the second golden age of museum architecture, we frequently see ourselves designing buildings that in too many instances are not very removed from their Beaux-Arts predecessors: advancing the monument at the expense of the visitors and their experience of art. The seamless integration of architectural expression, interpretation of art, and the visitor experience should be our goal. Achieving it requires attention to the art museum as a medium with a unique ability to enrich people’s lives in material ways.

From the J. Paul Getty Museum Symposium:

  • Adams, M. and Luke, J. From Heart to Head to Hand: A Synthesis of Issues and Strategies Raised at the From Content to Play Symposium. (“From Content to Play: Family-Orientated Interactive Spaces in Art and History Museums,” a conference held at J. Paul Getty Museum Symposium.) (2005).
  • Edwards, R. The Getty Family Room: Unpacking the Ideas and Assumptions behind the Development of an Interactive Space. (“From Content to Play: Family-Orientated Interactive Spaces in Art and History Museums,” a conference held at J. Paul Getty Museum Symposium. (2005).

Recently published material:

  • Pitman, B. & Hirzy, E. Ignite the Power of Art: Advancing Visitor Engagement in Museums. Dallas Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2011.
  • Burnham, R. & Kai-Kee, E. Teaching in the Art Museum: Interpretation as Experience. Getty Publications, 2011.
  • Simon, N. The Participatory Museum, Museum 2.0, 2011.
  • Falk, J. H. Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. Left Coast Press, 2011.

Influential classics:

  • Lang, C., Reeve, J. (eds.) The Responsive Museum: Working with Audiences in the Twenty-First Century. Aldershot, Ashgate, 2006.
  • Durbin, G. “The Educational Basis for the Galleries,” in Creating the British Galleries at the V&A: A Study in Museology. C. Wilk and N. Humphrey. V&A, 2004

Writings on the unspoken contract between museums and visitors:

  • O'Neill, M. “The Good Enough Visitor,” in Museums, Society, Inequality ( R. Sandell, ed.) Routledge, 2002.
  • O'Neill, M. "Kelvingrove: Telling stories in a treasured old/new museum." Curator, vol. 50, no. 4. 2007.

Additional commentary:

  • Meszaros, C. "Interpretation in the Reign of 'Whatever'." Muse, vol 25, no. 1. 2007.
  • Knutson, K., Crowley, K., et al. "Three Responses to Cheryl Meszaros' Evil "Whatever" Interpretation." Visitor Studies Today, vol. 9, no. 3. 2006.
  • Fritsch, J. "Thinking About Bringing Web Communities into Galleries and How It might Transform Perceptions of Learning in Museums.” Paper available at: (2007)